When I first started working at Union Square Cafe, I sometimes felt that management bowed to customer pressure too readily. Chalk that up to youthful ignorance. Once, when I was a junior manager, a guest loudly berated me for an overcooked steak. I asked him why, if the steak was so poorly cooked, he ate the entire meal before expressing his dissatisfaction. The next morning, Danny Meyer called me into his office to let me know that he had received a call from the guest complaining about how I handled the situation. As a mea culpa of sorts, Danny invited him and his wife back for another meal, entirely on the house. Echoing the wisdom of my grandfather, Danny helped me understand how short-sighted my approach was, and why taking the high road by either replacing the steak or removing it from the bill would have been the far better choice (and a much smaller investment). I have retold this story hundreds of times to young managers as both a cautionary tale and a way to encourage them to make our guests happy.
This summer, my family and I were on vacation in the Berkshires, looking for a quiet escape from the busy New York City scene. We were having dinner with our kids at a beautiful, intimate restaurant. Just as my wife took her second bite of a lobster and scallop appetizer, she went into anaphylaxis, what we later learned was the result of a newly developed shellfish allergy. The manager called 911 as our frightened children looked on. After a horrifying 15-minute wait for the paramedics, we left the restaurant via ambulance and were rushed to the ER. Thankfully, my wife fully recovered. The next day, the restaurant's chef called and I immediately thought to myself how gracious it was for him to check in with us. I thanked him profusely and explained that my wife was feeling better. He then continued, "Sir, I'm glad that your wife is better, but now I need to inquire about the check. We ended up wasting a lot of food on you, and I'd appreciate it if you would come by later today to pay..." (Yes, those were his actual words.)
A stark contrast with that interaction is an experience from a few years back with the crew from one of my favorite airlines. My wife and I were going away for her birthday, and we were running late for our flight. We arrived at the airport late, were stuck in security, and ultimately made it to the gate within minutes of the plane's door closing. There was one problem—they had already given away our seats to people flying standby. We pleaded with the gate clerk, explaining we were delayed because it took us so long to say goodbye to our children. She immediately called the lead flight attendant and within minutes we not only had seats but also had been upgraded to first class, where we were greeted with champagne to celebrate my wife's birthday. A skeptic (or a younger version of me) would likely question the gesture and note that those seats might have already been empty. Instead, the fact that they chose to treat us so well without any real resistance has only increased our fondness for and loyalty to the company. Their team clearly understood that doing the right thing not only helps to create brand loyalty but can also be personally rewarding. This is inherent to the company's culture and key to its success.
It makes good business sense. And, more importantly, it's the right thing to do.